The Long Way Home 6.24.22

Since early last month, the Grand Marais City Council has been considering a request from a food truck operator looking to place its vehicle on city-owned property at Coast Guard Point this summer. Current ordinances do not permit such a use.

The topic was on the agenda and discussed over the course of three meetings. In its last meeting, the council essentially tabled the request, indefinitely, leaving the food truck operator in the lurch, needing a “peddler's license” and trying to find suitable private property to rent in the first month of the summer tourist season.

This led to a flurry of posts on social media lambasting the unwillingness of the council to say aye or nay and to just do nothing. Naturally, most of those posters supported a city ordinance that would allow and regulate food trucks on city property, and they want it now.

Back in the 1980s, I was a volunteer lobbyist, Chairman of the Legislative Committee, for the trade association my company belonged to. This involved occasional trips to Washington DC for meetings with regulators and elected members of Congress--lobbying. The association retained a part-time person, Danny Bring, to assist us with articulating our positions and arranging schedules for meetings and hearings.

Danny was completing his PhD dissertation while working with us. He went on to a career as a staff economist for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. He is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian and I was a rookie in the ways of Washington. I learned a great deal from him in our phone conversations and meetings.

Among the lessons I learned is that doing nothing is the easiest and most common thing that happens in Washington. Making sure that nothing gets done is the job of the lobbying industry that funds election campaigns and the politicians in both parties who benefit from that cash.

Nothing I’ve seen since getting that lesson, from Washington down to local government, and even in private business, contradicts it. Most people would rather do nothing when faced with an important decision.

Another of my Washington shepherds, a long-time friend, and confidant, told me to imagine bringing a pocketful of pebbles with me on my lobbying trips to DC and dropping them in the Potomac. Then, returning to the same spot and dropping a pocketful of stones each time I go back. Eventually, there would be enough pebbles there to bend the river, just a bit. This tactic gave me some consolation.

I’m not surprised the Grand Marais City Council found it easy to put this particular food truck operator’s request on the shelf. There is more than one interest at work that they are responding to. Private land owners that collect rent from food trucks. Issues with public safety and traffic/parking. An eager public hoping for more food truck options. Brick-and-mortar restaurant owners who are ambivalent. A segment of the population that routinely objects to using public spaces for private businesses.

As frustrating as it is, doing nothing when important change is required is a human trait.

And the best way to combat it is to organize, and put lots of pebbles in your pocket.